Brattleboro Grapples with School Closing

03/21/02 12:00AM By Susan Keese

(Host) Earlier this year, the Brattleboro School Board voted to end regular classes at the Canal Street School. The historic building houses kindergarten, first and second grade classes and serves a low income neighborhood.

The new plan calls for the building to be used for HeadStart and pre-school programs instead. It's an unpopular decision in some quarters, as VPR s Susan Keese reports.


(Sound of child playing with traffic in the background.)

(Keese) Canal Street School is a Brattleboro landmark: a distinctive stone building with a dome-shaped bell tower and six classrooms. It's situated at the edge of the busy downtown shopping area. Many of the little ones arrive on foot, chaperoned by parents and relatives:

(Jean Rawson) "Okay, you guys, go line up...if you have a problem you come over and tell me, all right... see you later...."

Neighbors linger. They talk together as the children join their friends on the playground. Jean Rawson has just dropped off her grandson. She stops to share her opinion.

(Rawson) "I think it's ridiculous that they're closing the school. It's been nothing but a school for 100 years."

(Keese) The Canal Street neighborhood has never been a wealthy one, Rawson notes. But it's a community that sticks together. Local activists have created a park, a neighborhood watch, and summer programs for the children:

(Rawson) "And this school does really make them feel good about themselves, which is really important. When they get up in high school, that's when the trouble starts because they don't learn when they're young enough that it's okay to be different. It's okay if they can't be as smart as someone else...."

(Keese) Under the school board's plan, the children at Canal Street would go to Brattleboro's Oak Grove School or to one of the town's two other elementary schools. Lisa Cox is the school board chairwoman:

(Cox) "About a year ago, during budget season, the Board looked at our declining enrollment and the increasing costs – particularly how they affected the tax rate – and decided that we really need to be looking at some long term solutions to the size of our schools."

(Keese) To consolidate, the Board also decided on a new strategy. They would close Canal and offer a complete K-6 program in each of the town's three remaining schools. The Board also saw advantages to busing some kids to different neighborhoods.

(Cox) "We liked the idea of having consistent experiences for all students around town, and we saw it as a way of addressing a real concern... that we've had for a number of years. And that was a socio-economic disparity across town.... The research suggests that there's a certain tipping point beyond which it becomes very hard to create a strong educational culture when the poverty level is too high."

(Keese) Vicki Roach teaches reading at Canal Street. She doesn't see the advantages in closing a school that already works well for the community it serves. She says the layout of the school is perfect for young children, and parent involvement is considered high.

(Roach) "I think just the presence of this school, having children come in and out everyday on a regular basis, is a stabilizing force in this neighborhood where there aren't a lot of stabilizing forces."

(Keese) Larry Alper, the principal of Canal and Oak Grove Schools, supports the new plan.

(Alper) "It's understandably upsetting, because people believe in the work they do in those places and it's hard to let go of that."

(Keese) Opponents of the Canal Street closing have formed a group called BESTT – Brattleboro Elementary Schools Today and Tomorrow.

Brattleboro's one-of-a-kind representative town meeting is coming up Saturday. Members of BESTT are hoping to see a non-binding resolution introduced, urging the school board to reconsider its plan.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Susan Keese in Brattleboro.
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